A true blue American tradition, like baseball and apple pie. Practiced by every creed and color in the country. You don’t have to speak English to live in the US, but not eating pizza? Fuggetaboutit! Even crazy vegetarians and dirty hippies can eat it. Don’t quote me on this, but I am pretty sure that right after signing the declaration of independence, our founding fathers ordered out for pizza. Could be, rabbit. Some families make it a regular treat. A part of the weekly routine. “It’s Friday night, Johnny. And you know what that means? That’s right. Pizza night!” For other families, it might be a more sporadic but no less anticipated delight. I mean, really. Who doesn’t love pizza? The Taliban?
At this point you must be scratching your head, wondering if my mom was sick enough to deny us this sacred American sacrament? Did she have no shame? Was she a communist? No. We did in fact partake occasionally in this ritual. One wonders, just how do you fuck up pizza night? Let me explain. No, wait. There’s no time for that. Let me sum up.
But first, let me digress. I told my sister Gen what I was writing about, and she knew exactly what I was talking about the second I told her the title of this one would be pizza night. Then she laughed at my intense childhood pain, because that is what little sisters do. Even thirty-eight year old ones. This story is not about her personal pain at all. This one will fall squarely on the shoulders of Mary and myself.
Here’s the windup. It’s Friday night. I am eleven years old. The school week is finally done. The vast and boundless opportunities of the weekend stretch luxuriously out in front of me. I can stay up late and watch some scary movies all night without having to go to bed at any set time. These are pre-VCR days, when I actually had to hold a pillow in front of my face during the really terrifying parts, instead of just hitting the fast forward button. Hammer Films Rule, Baby! Or I might just stay up all night reading the latest Tarzan book I happen to be working on. These were a few of my favorite things.
I wander into the kitchen and ask my mom what we are having for dinner. As our fearless readers have come to know, this was no idle question. This innocent question was like waiting in the doctor’s office while he silently read your test results behind his desk. The doctor looks up at you from behind his folder, and your heart stops for just a moment. Would it be the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat? Or, as was the case on this particular night, a little bit of both. When she told me that we were having pizza that night, I was immediately elated. I loved pizza. And I had dodged the liver and lima beans bullet. Score one for the home team! That also meant no Hungarian Goulash, Borsht, Onion Soup, overcooked beef roast, hard meatloaf, dried out chicken, or any other of the myriad mystery meat surprises we often had to plow through.
Anticipation built up all around me. My sister’s were just as glad as I was to be getting pizza for dinner. Just as pleased as I was that we would not be eating whatever brown substance was behind door number three tonight. Finally, the moment came. My evil stepfather got home with the pizza. Now don’t get confused here. My stepfather didn’t bring the pizza home with him after a long day of work. He walked about a block down the street and picked it up. That was probably the most he did all day. He seemed very partial in my view to sitting in his corner chair and drinking. We all sat down to eat at the dinner table. Eleven year old me, ten year old Jenny, six year old Mary, my stepfather and my mother. The pizza was the centerpiece of the table, which worked out well, as we always seemed to have a round kitchen table.
Finally the box lid was lifted, and I gazed down lovingly at the object of my affection. There is something truly perfect and timeless about pizza. It looks incredibly appetizing, reassuring tired taste buds that a flavor bonanza was on the way. I always liked my pizza plain, with just three key toppings. Salt, pepper, and grease. Watching the first piece lifted up from its cohorts, melting hot cheese drip sliding down the sides, and that perfect smell fully hitting your nostrils for the first time. How delightful that first piece was. Even if I managed to burn the roof of my mouth for the umpteenth time, it was still a small slice of heaven every time. Even with the extreme heat, it is hard to tell where that first piece goes sometimes. One minute I am savoring large bites of saucy, cheese covered joy, the next I am holding a bit of hard crust in front of my face and wondering what happened.
But on pizza night in my family, I was not allowed this simple, magical pleasure. Under most normal pizza eating circumstances, one wonderful slice would be followed directly by another, and perhaps another, with no pause in the rapturous process of stuffing one’s face with the nectar of the gods. Could anyone reasonably argue that the Ambrosia the Greek Gods spoke of eating on Mount Olympus wasn’t pizza? Instead of enjoying this wonderful, relaxed family moment, I could already feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead. Stress welled up in my chest before I was halfway through my slice, as I gazed around the table in an almost panic to see how my other family members were progressing on their slices.
It boils down to simple math, really. Two adults, three kids, eight slices of pizza. The adults always eat two pieces each. Half the pizza gone right there. Down to three kids and four slices. That means no second piece for two of us. The viscous game of musical chairs had begun. No time to waste, You needed to pound that first piece back so as to not be left staring into the empty box, trying to pick little bits of dried cheese of the bottom while your lucky sibling slowly chewed their prized second slice. Panic sets in as you watch your little sister across the table from you whittling away at her slice. I was lucky in one sense in that Gen was a pretty skinny kid, and was not a big eater at all. She was happy at that age with just one slice. For Mary and me, it was a little different. We were both big eaters. Even at six, Mary could pack it away. When my son was just her age, we could split a whole large pie jut by ourselves, so I imagine Mary might have wanted more than just one slice at that age. I know I did.
Dinner should be a pleasant, relaxing time. Families sharing a good meal and relating the ups and downs of their various daily experiences. There should be no winners and losers. But the worst part about gulping down that first slice and scoring the second one was always the disappointed look on Mary’s face as I snagged the last slice from right under her nose. Mary watching me as I enjoyed that last slice of heaven, while she was left to make a meal of her hard crust and the drippings still cooling on the bottom of the box. I walked away from every one of those meals either still hungry for myself, or profoundly remorseful for taking that last slice away from my little sister, who was going to bed still hungry that night. That’s right, I actually felt bad every single time after pizza night.
Now I have you wondering, maybe money was just that tight. One useless stepfather who never worked, and a mother who worked part time as an elementary school teacher. Not exactly a huge cash flow. But I can tell you one thing about my parents. They never went without their necessities. Cigarettes, because they both smoked at least a pack a day. Coffee all the time. Booze every day. My mom regularly drank a couple of fifths a week, and my stepfather drank beer and the hard stuff every day. And pot. They always managed to have a bag of that laying around just in case, and that shit doesn’t just grow on trees, you know. And my stepfather always had some hidden snack food around the house that only he had access to. That motherfucker wasn’t going to bed hungry on pizza night; I can guarantee you that. But can a brother or a sister get a second slice of pizza, for Christ’s sake?
I gotta tell you, it’s always something. Some children are beaten, some are molested, and some are completely deprived of sustenance. I am not really sure what to call this type of abuse. But it was constant, it was pervasive, and it was completely effective. I talked to Gen about how hard these stories are to write. It reminds me just a few days after my mom had died, and Gen was reading all of her writings that she found. Gen looked at me and said, “After reading so much of this horrible crap, I wish I could bring her back to life so I could kill her all over again.” Sometimes, I guess, all those proverbial little missed pieces of pizza can add up to a heavy, insurmountable debt. Anyone out there know any voodoo witch doctors?
2 Responses to “Pizza Night!”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.